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Shayla Tejada ’17 was a senior at Reading High School, unsure of what to do next. Then an Albright admission counselor visited her school and planted an idea in her mind: She could be the first member of her family to graduate from college.

A financial aid representative called Tejada about a month before she started at Albright, telling her she’d receive a Charles A. Rist Family Endowed Scholarship. She and her parents, a hospital housekeeping supervisor and a factory worker, wouldn’t have to pay any tuition. Now Tejada is a junior studying accounting and business administration. She plans to become a certified public accountant, earn a master’s degree, and rebuild her late grandmother’s house in the Dominican Republic.

“It means a lot being the first generation to go to college. You have a big opportunity to represent yourself and your family, and also give back to your community and country,” says Tejada, 20. “Just changing one person’s perspective, like someone changed mine, can do so much.”

A recent report from the Council of Independent Colleges showed that students from low-income families, and those whose parents didn’t attend college, are more likely to thrive at smaller, private, liberal arts schools.

About a third of all American college students are so-called first-generation students, generally defined as those whose parents both lack college degrees. They’re more likely to attend college close to family, less likely to live on campus and more likely to work long hours at off-campus jobs.

The question of how to make a high-quality college education more accessible to these students is one of the main concerns at colleges across the United States. By 2020, President Barack Obama wants the U.S. to be the first in the world for sending students to college. Researchers at Georgetown University estimated that at current rates, America falls 300,000 college graduates short of this goal every year.

Joyce Ballaban, Ed.D., helps students from disadvantaged backgrounds get to college as an adviser for the national organization Upward Bound. Her own history as a first-generation college graduate means she understands the challenges of entering an unfamiliar world. She thought college was off-limits to her because she hadn’t chosen a major, her parents couldn’t afford tuition, and she lacked stellar grades.

“We’re always trying to give them as much information as we can,” says Ballaban, who works in the Reading School District and is an adjunct lecturer in Albright’s Accelerated Degree Program. “We’re constantly repeating it for them.”

Several adults mentored Mykala Harris ’17 when she was a student at the Philadelphia High School for Girls, a public magnet school. One teacher nominated Harris for the prestigious International Baccalaureate program, and she took part in Summer Search, a program that prepares students from disadvantaged backgrounds for life after high school. She visited Albright on a Summer Search tour and fell in love with the campus. Now she’s a junior studying business administration.

“I was surrounded by happiness from administration and students,” Harris writes from Germany, where she’s studying.

First-generation and low-income students experience challenges many of their more privileged peers don’t. They might have parents who work long hours for meager wages. They might balance working part-time and maintaining grades high enough to keep a scholarship. But they bring extra gratitude and survival skills.

Genevieve Aujour ’16 recalls a snowstorm that knocked out electricity in Albright’s neighborhood for several days. While other students had frayed nerves, she remembered how often people bathed without running water in Carrefour, Haiti, where she spent part of her childhood. A few days without power was nothing in comparison.

Aujour and her family live near Reading, but her heart remains in Haiti. One of her goals after graduating with her business administration degree is to open a child development center where youth in her home country can work toward improving their lives. She wrote the business plan in an Albright marketing class.


A History of Opportunity

From Albright’s beginning, the core of its mission has been to create educational opportunity for those who otherwise couldn’t access higher education.

Johannes Jacob Albrecht—also known as Jacob Albright—for whom the college was named, was an itinerant Pennsylvania German preacher. Many of Albrecht’s followers were farmers and tradesmen. Seeing a need for formal education among the people they served in Central Pennsylvania, they founded the schools that eventually became Albright College.

“Our founding spirit,” notes Albright President Lex McMillan, “was a spirit of giving poor people, people of modest means, a chance to advance.”

Findings from the Council on Independent Colleges, released in March, show that smaller private schools are often most accessible
to first-generation and low-income students. Students from these groups make up a higher percentage of the student bodies at small private colleges than at larger schools. Independent colleges are also more likely to graduate disadvantaged students within four years, and with no debt.

“As a nation, we have to have more college graduates,” says Harold V. Hartley III, senior vice president of the CIC. “These small, private colleges are the best way to get there.”

Getting students into colleges isn’t enough—students need to graduate. The CIC found that freshmen at schools like Albright are more likely to have classes taught by full-time faculty. They are also more engaged in activities like sports and the arts than their counterparts at bigger schools. Students are more likely to stay in caring communities on close-knit campuses.

One early fall tradition at Albright is House Call, when faculty and staff volunteers patrol residence halls and check on new students. As volunteers give students cookies, they ask how they’re adjusting to life at Albright. Occasionally College staff learn of troubles where they can intervene.

“It’s hard to quantify, but I think it saves a kid or two,” says Greg Eichhorn, dean of admission.

Tejada felt that sense of nurture when her grandmother died shortly before her junior year. “Every day my professors asked me, ‘How are you doing?’” she recalls, shedding tears.

Shared Sacrifice

Albright has long been known for enrolling first-generation students, along with those from low-income and working-class families. Unlike colleges that have more recently committed to reach out to these students, Albright doesn’t have to make special efforts to recruit them.

“This is a place that can recognize potential,” Eichhorn says.

Albright’s annual cost of attendance is estimated at more than $53,000 for students who live on campus, but the College also promises to close the financial gaps for every accepted student. Since 2013, Albright has covered these costs with a combination of scholarships, grants, on-campus jobs and federal loans.

“Families have a chance to be here if they want to come,” says Christopher K. Hanlon, Albright’s financial aid director.

Students have to apply for financial aid through the College and federal government, along with an application called the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE. This creates work for students and parents, but Hanlon says it’s necessary to ensure the financial aid office awards money carefully, to those who truly need it. Different forms capture different information, like the costs of a sibling’s education at a school with a lower sticker price.

“There’s always going to be a paperwork burden because you have to do a needs analysis,” he says. “We’re trying to do a fair needs analysis for everyone.”

Low-income families aren’t expected to contribute as much, but their sacrifices are still great. Aujour’s mother works the night shift at a store, and her father is a truck driver who is home one weekend every three weeks. They bought used cars for Aujour and her sister, a nurse, and her mother makes dinner every night.

“You see your parents work extra hard to provide,” Aujour says.

Herfa Maitland ’17, a political science and communications major, came to Albright because it offered the best financial aid package of the 10 colleges that accepted her.

She hopes to enter the Peace Corps and work for the United Nations. Her financial aid includes loans, and she’s borrowing a bit more to spend a semester in Cyprus this spring. She makes sure to spend carefully. “I don’t have all the money in the world to do what I want,” Maitland says.

Similarly, McMillan says Albright works hard to save money without compromising students’ education or financial aid. The College has outsourced operations of food service and the campus bookstore, and cooperates with other colleges to buy employee health insurance, securing a better deal.

“We have to be very savvy buyers of everything we buy, from toilet paper to test tubes,” McMillan says.

And he stresses that scholarships are funded by donations, many of them from alumni.

Harris doesn’t plan to graduate until 2017, but she’s already planning to give back.

“I plan to start my own scholarship through the school,” she writes. “Without financial aid, I would not be able to attend college. Donors are the forefront of making college access for low-income students possible, and I want to pay it forward for years to come.”

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